A U.S. governor of Indian descent returning to her parents’ birthplace was major news in the world’s second-most-populous nation over the past two weeks.
During her 10-day trade mission to recruit businesses and tourists, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was a constant presence in the Indian press.
Haley answered questions about South Carolina’s economy and tourist attractions (both are great, come visit), her similarities with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (both pro-business) and her chances of running for president (nope, not interested).
But a good deal of the attention that Haley received revolved around her religious faith. Haley told the Indian NDTV network that she became a Christian because she never learned Punjabi, the language of her parents’ Sikh religion.
She was asked if she felt pressured to convert.
“Growing up in gurdwaras (Sikh houses of worship) was very much a part of who I was. And feeling that faith was important,” said Haley, whose given first name – Nimrata – means “small” in Punjabi. “I grew up and, when I would sit in a gurdwara, I’d feel the faith. I felt it, but I couldn’t understand it.
“So as I got older, I needed more. Being able to go into Christianity and really understand and connect, that’s where it came from,” added Haley, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1960s. “But I’ll never deny the fact that I grew up in the Sikh faith. I’m very proud of that.
“I know my humility came from there. I know that what I feel in terms of my belief in God came from there. It’s just that Christianity spoke to me at a time where I needed connection. No, political pressure should never change a person.”
Haley’s personal visit to the Sikh shrine Harmandir Sahib, better known as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar drew the most coverage of her trade mission.
Haley broke down during a news conference after the temple visit.
“We are here to give our respects. I am not here as a governor,” Haley said, wearing traditional Indian clothing. “I had heard lots of special things from my parents. ... I feel very humbled and very honored to have been here. It took me 40 years, but it was worth the wait.”
The visit also led to the only controversy reported in the Indian press during the governor’s trip: the decision by a Sikh priest to give his ceremonial sword to Haley’s husband, Michael.
Some Sikhs were upset that giving the sword to a non-Sikh violated the faith’s codes, according to a news report.
During the mission with an 18-member delegation of state government and corporate officials, Haley received glowing reports about the visits that made up the bulk of her trip – speaking to businesses and tourism conferences as well as colleges.
Speaking to S.C. reporters late last week from Mumbai, Haley said she was not surprised at the amount of media attention her visit received. She said she has learned the India press is aggressive and overly enthusiastic over the years.
“We get that even in South Carolina,” she said. “They have always been interested in what we’ve done in South Carolina, even when I was a (S.C.) House member as well as governor.
“I knew we were going to be dealing with a very enthusiastic press corps here. It’s a lot. I think, in numbers, the press is a lot bigger (than in the United States).”